Gruesome Murders Haunt ‘Quiet Dell’

Lee Polevoi

 

Quiet Dell

By Jayne Anne Phillips

Scribner

445 pages

 

 

In 1931, after an exchange of love letters, a man calling himself Cornelius Pierson first relocated a middle-aged widow named Asta Eicher and later her three children, from their home in Park Ridge, Illinois, to the small town of Quiet Dell, West Virginia. Weeks later, the bodies of the Eicher family were discovered beneath the garage of a home owned by Harry Powers, who turned out to be a psychopathic killer. Powers was convicted of their murders (and others) and executed in 1932.

 

The story behind this grisly real-life crime is the subject of Jayne Anne Phillips’ uneven but beautifully written new novel, Quiet Dell. In the early pages, she chronicles the lives of the Eicher clan members—Asta, desperate to maintain a decent lifestyle after the death of her husband, and the children, Grethe, a mentally challenged 14-year-old girl, Hart, 12, the “man of the family,” and 9-year-old Annabel, a youngster with a rich imagination.

 

Asta Eicher’s fate is kept from our view in the first part of the novel. We are witness, instead, to the second journey made with the children in Mr. Pierson’s automobile. The well-dressed, fastidious and oddly impatient man promises them that their mother is waiting to reunite with them after a week’s absence. He’s attentive to their needs during the long drive, even while he hurries them along through a picnic by the side of the road:

 

“Mr. Pierson had shown them the view from the outlook, pointing out the rills of water tumbling into a ravine far below, and the hairpin turns in the road, looping here and there like bright stripes suddenly visible between the tops of trees. He’d carefully put everything back into the basket after their meal and walked across the highway to the outlook, as though to see the vista once again, carrying the basket. He stood even beyond the sign, with the basket at his feet. Then he turned suddenly, sending it over the edge with his foot.”

 

The children are unaware of the menace “Mr. Pierson” represents until it’s too late. Phillips’ decision to keep the details hidden away until later perfectly matches the ingratiating horror of the murderer himself.

 

 

The events leading up to the family’s disappearance closely align with what’s known about the victims (mother and daughters were found strangled, while the boy was beaten to death with a hammer). What follows, and forms the central part of Quiet Dell, is an account of Harry Powers’ arrest and trial, seen through the eyes of Emily Thornhill, a fictional Chicago Tribune reporter assigned to cover the court proceedings. Emily covers both the investigation and the trial, while becoming romantically involved with the Eicher family banker, a man riddled with guilt for not having done more to help Asta when she was alive.

 

It’s here that some narrative challenges arise. Emily appears almost instantly full-blown in her drive and self-possession, despite the comparative rarity of young, strong-willed female reporters in the early Depression years. Some of the dialogue in her investigatory conversations borders on exposition (“I will interview Mr. Charles O’Boyle this evening in Chicago, before departing for West Virginia. I should arrive there a day after the Park Ridge police whose travel you funded.”) Minor details are repeated several times, assuming greater importance than they perhaps merit. And Emily’s relationship with the banker, Mr. Malone, assumes an implausible intensity almost from the moment they meet.

 

These missteps aside, Phillips writes prose of an arresting and lyrical nature, and is ideally suited to capture such moments as Emily’s first experience of the crime scene in Quiet Dell:

 

“The sun was low in the sky and the angle of light burnished the ground. Heavy-limbed trees stood silhouetted in the field, gravid, sentinel, their canopies subtly stirring. The sky was still pale blue against the darker earth, and the creek seemed to mark a line between one world and another. She imagined walking across the water, leading Duty on the leash to that other, empty meadow that lay bathed in the softest pearlized light, but could not bring herself to approach. None of them, on this side, were worthy of that place.”

 

Author Bio:

 

Lee Polevoi is Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic and the author of a novel, The Moon in Deep Winter.  

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